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How to Get Started in Freelancing or Consulting | A Guide for the Recently Laid-Off

June 24th, 2008

Given the seemingly-daily announcements of new corporate layoffs, it’s no surprise that my most frequently asked question of the moment is about how to start a career as a freelancer or independent consultant. Many of these queries come from the recently downsized. Some of them are looking for ways to make extra cash while hunting for their next full-time position. Others are fed up with layoffs and bad corporate behavior and thinking about making a permanent switch to working for themselves.

If you’re currently between jobs (or fear you may be soon), I recommend giving the freelance life a try. Even if you have no interest in working for yourself long-term, it’s a great way to create a temporary cash flow and make valuable contacts (those freelance clients will likely be hiring for full-time positions eventually).

Freelancing is also a good way to take control when the indignities of the typical job search start to make you feel powerless. Who knows? You may be so successful on your own  that you’ll never want to return to cubicle life. I know many thriving solopreneurs who started freelancing as a temporary arrangement between gigs and got hooked.

So how do you get started? If you’ve been laid off, you’re probably  itching to start making some money fast. That’s why I put together the tips below on how to quickly land those first paying gigs (for more in-depth advice on launching a career as a solopreneur, please also check out Chapter 8 of  Escape from Corporate America). 

1) Define your service offering. For some of you, this is a no-brainer. Certain career specializations lend themselves to freelancing more easily than others. For example, there is always demand for freelance writers, designers, and programmers. But there are also plenty of opportunities for those whose skills are not quite as easily packaged. Think about who might be able to use your knowledge, talents and experience on a freelance basis. Can you manage projects, advise on strategy, conduct research, or revamp processes (to name just a few examples)? It’s important to be proactive about defining what you can do. Don’t just wait around for potential clients to tell you what they need.

2) Set your rates. The question of what to charge can be a challenging one. When you’re starting out, setting your rate will be more art than science. Do your research on the going market rates for similar services by checking out listings for freelancing and consulting assignments on the sites mentioned in Tip #3 below. Join a networking group for independent professionals in your field (like Freelancers’ Union or Mediabistro for example) and ask other members about appropriate fee ranges. As a newbie, you’ll probably have to be a bit flexible. Once you’ve got some experience to back up your claims of greatness and a better understanding of your fair market value, you can always adjust your rates accordingly.

 3) Find assignments. There are potential clients out there looking for you right now. You just have to know where to find them.

  • Start with online freelance marketplaces like eLance.com and Guru.com. You can browse through available projects and bid on the ones that interest you.
  • Job boards like Monster.com and Hotjobs.com can also be good sources. Search for "freelance" or "contract" positions. Similarly, there are often freelance job listings on Craigslist. Many of these listings are placed by staffing agencies that frequently fill contract positions. Make note of which agencies have posted attractive opportunities and consider contacting them directly to ask about other openings.For example, Hired Guns is a NYC-based agency that specializes in contract and freelance work.

4)  Do your own business development. Not all great assignments are listed. That’s why it pays to reach out to your network and let people know that you are available for freelance or contract work. Describe the types of projects that you’re seeking and express your appreciation for any leads or suggestions. And don’t stop with the people that you already know. Spend a few bucks on some business cards for your freelancing business and pass them out at networking events and other gatherings (you can get cheap business cards at VistaPrint, but I recommend steering clear of the free ones with the VistaPrint logo that make it obvious just HOW cheap your cards are). While you’re at it, update your profile on LinkedIn and Facebook (and other social networks and industry directories)  to reflect your new status as a consultant.

5) Get to work. Once you’ve got your first assignment, the hardest part is over. Do a great job, get paid, and prepare for more work to roll in.

Of course, it will take time to learn all of the ins and outs of freelance life — invoicing, managing your time, managing your clients, managing your cash flow, and all of that fun stuff. If you have questions about these or other aspects of making the move from employee to independent consultant, let me know and I I’ll address them in a future post. Similarly, if you’re an experienced independent contractor with tips for those new to the game, please share your wisdom.

The important thing to remember is that you don’t necessarily need a 9-to-5 job to pay your bills. That can be very reassuring news for anyone who has been laid off or is feeling panicky about the less-than-promising job market. If you’ve ever thought about what it might be like to work for yourself, now may be the perfect time to try it out.

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26 Comments
Alexandra Levit

Hi, this is good stuff! If you don’t mind, I think I’ll pull a quote or two for the Independence chapter of my new book. Hope you’re well!

Best,

Alexandra Levit
Author, How’d You Score That Gig?
Blogger, Water Cooler Wisdom
http://www.alexandralevit.com

Pamela Skillings

Hi Alexandra,
Thanks for the compliment. Feel free to quote away!

Ross

Pamela – a very nice and helpful article and some great advice to people thinking about freelancing for the first time – Huge numbers of people in various industries freelance – over 30% in graphic design, for example. I wanted to share one other place freelancers can turn – http://www.crowdspring.com – a new creative services marketplace. crowdSPRING is different in many ways from the Elances of the world – a much different model, for starters. There is never a charge to freelancers – no membership fees, no commissions. Buyers pay a 15% commission and although we are 45 days old, we’ve already run over 226 projects and have paid tens of thousands of dollars to freelancers (we require every buyer to escrow funds with us BEFORE they post their project – there are no exceptions). So, we invite you and your readers to take a look at one more alternative for freelancers who provide creative services.

Ross
co-Founder (crowdSPRING)

Pamela Skillings

Hi Ross,
Thanks for the info on Crowdspring. It looks like an interesting model for freelance designers, especially those who are new and trying to build portfolios. The downside for more experienced freelancers (from what I gather from the site) is that you do the work without knowing if you’ll get paid (because only one design is ultimately picked and paid for by the client). On the positive side, though, it lets newbies compete with more established designers based purely on the quality of the work.

Neal Berk

Great work. Really enjoyed it.

Oren Tamir

Dear Pamela.
Thank you for your enlightening article. Many times I was asked by friends and relatives why I don’t go “Freelancing” my talents, skills and abilities. I have to admit that I was afraid that nobody will ask for my services. I always needed the secure feeling of having a steady job in a powerful organization. Today I freelance my lecturing talent and selling my vast fields of knowledge and experience. Your article fell into my hands just in time! I integrate a steady job with freelanced teaching. My job is: “Online Business Development Manager” for online print shop named DCP-PRINT (http://www.dcp-print.com)

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Angela Stringfellow

A useful site to check out for anyone who is interested in getting started in freelancing is MBO Partners. They act as an employer of record, simplifying the tax process learning curve, and offer access to group healthcare benefits, retirement savings, expense reporting, plus they handle invoicing and some of that stuff that’s not much fun and takes a lot of time.

SpilltoJill

Good article and comments:)

Thanks:)

The Coach

My Executive clients in search of a new position are often seduced into thinking they can act as a consultant until they land the right job. I caution against doing so because an executive job search is a full time job. And the bigger part, as made clear in your blog, is that consulting is also a full time job that requires a different kind of networking. It is unwise to confuse a networking message with “I am looking for a job as a VP marketing and by the way, do you know of any consulting gigs.” Just not wise or expecially useful; no matter how alluring the prospect of making money while searching for a job can be. http://www.jobsearchdebugged.com

Pamela Skillings

The Coach raises a good point. If you are certain that your next career step is another full-time position, it’s important to keep your primary focus on the job hunt (especially if money isn’t an immediate concern). It’s also important to think carefully about how you present yourself when networking. If your top priority is finding a new full-time position, don’t dilute your message by trying to pitch yourself as a consultant to the same people at the same time.

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Mary Elizabeth Bradford

Great Post Pamela! However to build on your response to “The Coach” I have had plenty of executive clients in career transition that had agreed to take on a couple of consulting projects. Not only did it liven their confidence during that time but it gave them the ability to say to their networks in conversing with them: I have agreed to take on a short-term consulting project that is really exciting…. Stated with the correct diplomacy consulting projects in career transition can truly be a very positive situation for executives – and of course it gives them a taste of somthing they may wish to go ahead and do full time!

Pamela Skillings

Hi Mary Elizabeth,
Thanks for stopping by. Sounds like we’re on the same wavelength!

Chetan Sachdev

Thanks a lot, I really enjoyed this post. Makes clear every step needed. I am goona try that.

Marilyn Diaz

Great post. Makes is seem a little more real. As opposed to just flopping around trying everything, this helps get me focused.

Sandy Leviev

Great post. Great overview. Good job Pam.

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Changes

Very helpful list and advice. I have featured it and added you tomy new blog.

Thank you!

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Judy

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Schelle Holmes

Thank you for the helpful insights. Lay-offs – especially more than one in a row – can be very confidence-sucking. Your positive tips helped shed some sunshine. Thanks again!

karen mattson

Hi Pamela, I am so glad to see that the changes in corporate America did not go unmentioned in your excellent article. I am not a proponent of wallowing in the past- simply grateful that lessons learned do not get deleted from our, somewhat limited, collective memory. Adding a touch of humor was pure genius and I look forward to your post.

Avikshit

Pamela your article was very very useful, as I read it just before going to my first consulting meeting!

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